Research Writing Process: Organize, Outline, and Draft

March 1, 2023

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) report titled Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively asserts that “Effective writing is a vital component of students’ literacy achievement, and writing is a critical communication tool for students to convey thoughts and opinions, describe ideas and events, and analyze information” (Graham et al, 2016, p.1).  

Like reading, research about written expression asserts that students are more successful writers when instruction is scaffolded and when teachers “explicitly teach strategies for planning and goal setting, drafting, evaluating, revising, and editing” (Graham et al, 2016, p.2). 

To demonstrate the effectiveness of direct instruction in process writing, Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively cites a study completed in 2008 by Olson and Land. Their work focused on two schools in California where teachers, through the Pathway Project, received training on explicit reading and writing strategy instruction. The Pathway Project professional learning promoted teaching components of direct writing instruction, incorporating a Model-Practice-Reflect instructional cycle, and combining reading and writing together in an activity in order to help students learn about important text features (Graham et al, 2016, p. 6, 31, 44). The teachers in the 2008 study  “modeled the strategies and gave students time to practice and reflect on their use of writing strategies. They used an on-demand writing assessment to gauge student needs and progress” (Graham et al, 2016, p.72). The results of this two year intervention was that the overall writing quality demonstrated statistically significant improvement. 

Explicit strategy implementation during the research writing process is critical for middle and high school students. Specifically, for many students with LBLD, the very process of research writing with its myriad of steps and requirements may prevent them from accessing and organizing the information needed to meet the teachers’ expectations. When most middle and high school students are assigned a research paper, for example, often they receive a list of guidelines for the assignment and a due date, but little else. The students are expected to parse out the assignment into tasks, prioritize, manage their time, complete their work, and seek assistance as needed. Given the research on how student written output improves when they are explicitly taught the steps and process for creating a paper, teachers should focus on teaching specific ways for students to organize and outline their information when writing research papers. 

If students utilize the strategies and scaffolds provided for them during the research phase, they will find the outlining phase far easier than it would be otherwise. Explicitly teaching students to use a note-taking format that includes the established topic or focus and relevant subtopics will help them to organize and critically read their source information. When it comes time to write, rather than having to reread through all of their information, they will have their notes and research already organized by subtopics or main ideas.  

At this phase students may need additional instruction to help them sequence or order their ideas. Providing students with an outline format will help them understand essay structure and begin to internalize the steps of the writing process. Many students wish to skip to the outline phase and move straight to writing; however, beyond providing them with a pattern or a road map for their essays, outlines will also help students determine the strength of their arguments. Outlines can also remind students of the need to cycle back to their main thesis statement at the end of each paragraph and provide the necessary transitions as they move from one idea to another. 

For information on how to support the research writing process, explore the Free Teaching Strategy: The Research Writing process. To help students learn effective ways to organize their notes into outlines and tips to revise and edit their work, please navigate to the side bar.


Graham, S., Bruch, J., Fitzgerald, J., Friedrich, L., Furgeson, J., Greene, K., Kim, J., Lyskawa, J., Olson, C.B., & Smither Wulsin, C. (2016). Teaching secondary students to write effectively (NCEE 2017-4002). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website:

Sample proofreading checklist


Visual Outline Template


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